After playing and dismantling the best defense they've seen all year on Wednesday, with apologies to Gonzaga and Butler Tennessee is getting ready to face the best team they've seen all year period on Saturday. Texas A&M comes to town ranked 21st in the AP poll and Ken Pomeroy's ratings, the only current Top 30 team the Vols have faced with the mid-major Bulldogs both now 12-3. The Aggies are 12-2 and have won five straight after a December 5 loss at Arizona State. They escaped 61-60 in Starkville Wednesday night, surviving a 30.6% effort from the floor. But don't be fooled: the Aggies shoot 47.1% on average, 53rd best in the nation. And, impressively, they're also flirting with the Top 50 in opponent field goal percentage, giving up 39.5% from the floor.
This bunch will beat you down if you're not careful. Aside from a number of runaway wins against lesser competition, A&M boasts an 11 point win over Texas, a 19 point win over Baylor that's probably the SEC's best non-conference victory, and they opened SEC play with a 23 point win over Arkansas. They also beat Gonzaga 62-61.
There's more size coming here: leading scorers Jalen Jones and Danuel House go 6'7", and they've got a pair of 6'10" options in the post in freshman Tyler Davis and sophomore Tonny Trocha-Morelos. Senior guard Alex Caruso is still around too, who lit up the Vols from the arc last season. Texas A&M's excellent ball movement carved up Tennessee's defense in that game, setting the tone for a rough finish defensively last year.
Syracuse beat them by shooting 11 of 25 from the arc. Arizona State did it with defense, holding the Aggies to 31.1% from the floor. Mississippi State gave A&M trouble with some zone looks Wednesday night, so it'll be interesting to see if Tennessee goes back to that more.
Will Rick Barnes elect to make small ball Tennessee's plan going forward? The Vols would love more scoring from Armani Moore either way obviously, but watching Admiral Schofield progress has eased some of Tennessee's problems. After getting just 19 combined minutes in the final two non-conference games, Schofield played 25 at Auburn and 31 against Florida, getting 39 points and 16 rebounds combined. It's been hard to get a read on Rick Barnes' lineups, as he's made Kyle Alexander's minutes a bit of a revolving door. But small ball torched the Gator D and delivered by far Tennessee's best performance of the season. Going with Punter, Moore, Hubbs, Baulkman, and Schofield with Mostella, Reese, and Phillips providing most of the bench support may get Tennessee's most win-now lineup on the floor. And if the Vols can do what they did to Florida, you're playing to win now.
The challenge gets steeper tomorrow, but Tennessee is 8-0 at home this year. We'll see how the Vols come out and if they can turn one good win into two. 1:00 PM Saturday on the SEC Network. Go Vols.